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Finnish cities struggle to shelter undocumented migrants

With heavy snowfall and below-zero temperatures hitting the Finnish capital earlier than expected, the need for emergency shelter for the homeless took city officials by surprise.

Kodittomat valmistautuvat yön viettoon Helsingin Hermannin hätämajoituksessa.
Homeless people prepare to spend a night at a shelter in Helsinki's Hermanni district. Image: Yle

Helsinki faces an urgent need for mattresses and makeshift beds for undocumented migrants, some of whose asylum application appeals have been rejected. An emergency shelter was opened a week ago to cater to the homeless, mostly Roma people from Eastern Europe.

Another emergency shelter opened by the Helsinki Deaconess Institute and the Lutheran Church opened last Wednesday, and has been full ever since.

Many rejected applicants stay on

Deputy mayor Pia Panhelainen says that officials have to juggle two roles: On one hand, they are obligated to help those in need, but on the other are required to tell migrants about their imminent deportation.

”The high demand for emergency shelters proves that a lot of those who have been denied asylum do not return to their home country,” Panhelainen says.

The exact number of undocumented migrants still in Finland is unknown. Nearly 8,000 migrants are waiting for their asylum application appeals to be processed, and some are wondering whether it's worth staying in the country undocumented.

While city officials struggle, NGOs come to the rescue

NGOs and churches concerned about the situation emphasise that municipalities are ultimately responsible for the wellbeing of these people.

Lutheran pastor Juha Rintamäki from the Lauttasaari Parish says that churches should offer comfort and ease the fear of deportation.

"Regarding the Iraqis, for instance, Finland doesn't offer them anything when we reject their residence and asylum applications. We should pay attention to what kinds of situations we drive them into," says Rintamäki from the Lauttasaari Parish, who has urged other Helsinki churches to take a more active role.

Large municipalities like Helsinki and Espoo stress that they will not abandon anyone in dire need. However, they still don't have permanent solutions for prolonged, unprecedented situations such as this.

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